A Richmonder in France, Part 1

In honor of Bastille Day Weekend, this first of a two-part profile of Sara Shelburne, a Richmonder who made a splash in France, was written by Nyasia Williams, owner and licensed cosmetologist of Styles By Milan LLC, aspiring public relations professional and a 2018 Valentine volunteer. 

Did you know that Virginia’s capital, Richmond, was once home to a famous fashion designer by the name of Sara Shelburne? Featured in Vogue and The New York Times, this style guru owned two boutiques in Paris, designed several game-changing garments and earned international recognition for her work, which has even been collected by top fashion museums in the country, including The Museum at FIT in New York and (you guessed it) the Valentine in Richmond. If you are familiar with Richmond and you know fashion then this may not be news to you, but if not, then sit tight. This blog series will fill you in on the illustrious career of this RVA native.

Haven’t heard of Sara Shelburne? No need to feel out of the loop. There are some unexpected pieces to her puzzling story. Her career as a fashion icon was somewhat of an accident. Shelburne was born in Europe and moved to Richmond as an infant. She graduated from Richmond’s George Wythe High School and studied political science at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). When she returned to her native Europe she became one of the most famous individuals in the world of fashion at the time.

Morris, Bernadine. “A Lawyer Finds Happiness as Dress Designer.” The New York Times June 12, 1971.


Shelburne moved to Paris in 1964 to study international law at l’Institute Politic. Her career blossomed in the incredibly competitive law field and she ultimately earned a doctorate degree.

In Paris, however, fashion trumps all and Shelburne, who frequented the city’s streets in her self-made dresses, triumphed over French fashion. While researching American investment in the common market, she attracted attention from fashion journalists by wearing clothes she had designed and made herself. As she told the Richmond News Leader, “before I knew it I had offers to design. I hired a seamstress. And that’s how it started.” By 1969, she had established an atelier called Tanagra and employed eight women above her eponymous boutique on the Rue du Cygne in Paris who brought her designs to life.

Beauty Bulletin: Beauty As Personality By Majumdar, Sachindra K.Vogue; New York Vol. 156, Iss. 6, (Oct 1, 1970): p. 127 Richard Avedon Photographer

Her innovative ensembles caught the eye of designers and from there she was riding the fashion wave. “I had always designed my own clothes and American fashion magazines in Paris saw some of them and interviewed me. Several magazines here planning spreads on my clothes,” said Shelburne in 1969 to The Richmond Times Dispatch. From the bar exam to Vogues Beauty Bulletin, Shelburne tackled it all.

Shelburne left Richmond Times Dispatch readers stunned by her confidence, which was central to her successful transition from lawyer to fashion designer. “I lift the phone and say what I have to offer, and that’s all there is to it.”

Her legacy lives on through her international work and right here at the Valentine. Now I ask, do you know the ever-so-talented Sara Shelburne?